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Dobi-Dawn Frenette, Education Director for Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, enters Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

By now, the halls at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay are usually filled with the excitement and nerves of anxious students starting a new school year. In 2020, however, the First Nations school is largely empty as it starts its program later and online.

Unable to secure enough funding to address pandemic risks, Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC), a school for students from 24 First Nations in Ontario’s remote North, decided to offer virtual learning for the first seven weeks. For now, most of its anticipated 150 students will stay in their communities instead of moving to Thunder Bay, as teachers deliver curriculum in virtual classrooms.

“Stress levels are high, anxiety levels are high, just because we don’t know, we don’t know what the options are, what the answers are,” teacher Aaron Guthrie said. “We’re trying to prepare for multiple different angles, trying to make sure that we do the best we can.”

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As provinces map out measures and modify timetables to help protect students from COVID-19, First Nation schools have largely been left to handle preparations themselves. The federal government announced only days ago that it would provide $112-million in funding for schools on reserves to help pay for things such as ventilation, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. This was in addition to a $2-billion commitment to aid provinces and territories with their school plans.

But it’s unclear whether any of that money will help off-reserve First Nations schools, such as DFC and Pelican Falls High School in Sioux Lookout, which are designated as provincial private schools but receive education funding from Indigenous Services Canada to operate.

The education announcement came after First Nations leaders in Northern Ontario accused the federal government of discrimination for ignoring back-to-school plans from educators and tribal councils, who have been trying to navigate how to return to school safely without additional financial support. First Nations leaders say that puts the well-being of thousands of students in jeopardy.

Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in a statement that he was disappointed in the government’s delay to commit funding and that “educators, parents and students are now forced to scramble days before the school year is supposed to start.”

Sharon Angeconeb, principal of Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, stands for a portrait in the empty hallways of her school.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he understands the complexities of education in the North, where it often becomes a “jurisdictional tangle” with the province when it comes to funding First Nations students.

He didn’t provide any clarity about how Indigenous Services Canada will distribute the new funds, but said the $112-million will be for on-reserve schools, while First Nations students studying off reserve will be supported through the provincial allocation – $760-million in Ontario’s case.

The minister said the government remains committed to providing assistance to communities as specific needs arise, through “a number of resources.” These include, he says, the $685-million Indigenous Community Support fund directed toward communities and organizations, on and off reserve, for elder support, food insecurity, educational aid for children and mental-health assistance.

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A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Education, Ted Chang, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that First Nations schools are the responsibility of the federal government, but that the province will work with Ottawa to ensure that the schools have access to the money announced.

Dobi-Dawn Frenette, executive director of Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, the tribal group that oversees DFC and Pelican Falls, says they’ve accessed pieces of provincial funding to help offset costs for resources such as laptops. The province has also supplied protective equipment for DFC and Pelican Falls.

Ms. Frenette said they are working with First Nations to set up classrooms for their students in their communities, but the reality of life in the remote North presents its own compounding challenges for students, parents and educators.

A hand sanitizing station for staff and visitors sits in front a graduate board of students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

“Many of our students may not have access to a learning device, access to [internet] connectivity, they may not have access to a study space, many of our communities don’t have clean drinking water,” she said, adding that she estimates they will need $5.5-million to $7.5-million for their back to school plan that includes supporting in-classroom and remote learning.

Ottawa’s funding announcement comes too late to help schools initially because back-to-school plans for the start of the year have already been made. The schools hope to be able to make use of those funds in the coming weeks and months so they can increase in-classroom learning.

Like DFC, Matawa First Nations operates a high school in Thunder Bay for students from its nine communities. Education manager Sharon Nate said the First Nation received no response from Indigenous Services to its $25-million pandemic proposal, which included retrofitting facilities and improving internet capacity.

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She said it was unreasonable to expect them to use core and existing funding to address these needs. The Matawa Education Centre in Thunder Bay would normally see around 160 students this fall but are expecting 100 to 120 when they open their doors Sept. 3 to both in-class and remote learning.

Assembly of First Nations statistics show that more than half of First Nations schools in the country don’t have high-school programming and that 78 per cent of First Nations students in Ontario have to leave their communities to attend high school, including most of the 49 communities in Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

Parents John and Beatrice Fox from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, said they dreaded that prospect even prior to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, they were prepared to keep their 15-year-old daughter Heidi home.

Ms. Angeconeb and Ms. Frenette, inside Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

But another option emerged. The Fox family found out about the Home Away program that was started in 2019 by the Independent First Nations Alliance, a tribal council representing five First Nations. The program allows 45 students from two of its communities, KI and Muskrat Dam, to live in residences and boarding homes in Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay and Southern Ontario while attending local public high schools.

“I feel safe, like with their own house, their own bathroom and it’s not that far,” Mr. Fox said about the distance to Sioux Lookout from their home in KI where he and his wife will stay.

Matthew Hoppe, the chief executive of Independent First Nations Alliance (IFNA) in Sioux Lookout, says academic success will be difficult to achieve through remote and online learning. He said their program provides “wraparound” services to ensure students have academic and mental-health supports such as tutoring, land-based activities and counselling because of the challenges they face when coming out to urban centres.

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“Our goal is to provide that learning environment, provide those resources, provide those people, provide that support, and allow these kids to thrive,” he said.

Pikangikum First Nation is one of the few communities in Nishnawbe Aski Nation with a high school that goes up to Grade 12, which allows its young people to remain in the communities. Eenchokay Birchstick school will open its doors to 568 students between Grades 6 and 12, while 538 students from kindergarten to Grade 5 will have laptops to start their school year from home.

Education director Kyle Peters says they haven’t received any additional funds from Indigenous Services or the province to assist with costs related to reopening, but he’s keeping receipts and hopes to get reimbursed for expenditures. Those include $80,000 for three chartered planes to safely transport its teachers into the community, where there have been no reported cases of COVID-19.

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